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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Charley's Aunt Appears in the Bay Area


There have been more productions of Brandon Thomas's Charley's Aunt than I can imagine, since it was first produced in London in 1892. It has long been a staple of regional and college theaters. It has been made into film at least three times, the last being made in 1942 with Jack Benny playing in drag. It was also made into a wonderful musical starring Ray Bolger under the title Where's Charley. I remember seeing him and singing along with the hit song "Once In Love With Amy." I have also seen Jose Ferrer and Rene Auberjonois take over the role of the aunt. There was a television version on Playhouse 90 in 1957, with Art Carney in the role. In that production, the real Donna Lucia d'Alvadorez was played by Jeanette McDonald. I also saw a very strange production with Roddy McDowell as the aunt and he really suited the part.

Now one of our leading regional theater companies is happily presenting this old war horse. TheatreWorks has assembled an amazing cast and Los Angeles director Jules Aaron has brilliantly staged the farce. The timing of this cast is impeccable and Los Angeles actor Michael David Edwards is the delicious nut from Brazil. There is not one weak performance in this group. They work like perfectly mechanized clockwork.

Charley's Aunt takes place in 1905 at Oxford University where student Jack Chesney is hopelessly in love with Miss Kitty Verdon, and his mate Charles Wykeham is equally enamored with Miss Amy Spettigue. However, this is a time when it is not appropriate for young ladies to associate with young gentlemen without a chaperone present. Charles is expecting his wealthy aunt from Brazil, whom he has never seen, to visit him and so the young men have invited the young ladies to luncheon in Jack's room where they will meet the rich widow. However, the aunt sends word that she will be delayed for several days and will not be there for the luncheon. The young ladies arrive and there is no aunt. They, being proper young ladies, cannot stay and they state they will return later in the day when the aunt is there. The boys must act quickly or they will lose their opportunity to declare their love to the young ladies. The solution soon presents itself when their fellow thespian friend, Lord Fancourt Babberley, is persuaded to dress up as an old widow and be presented as Charley's aunt.

The girls return and fall for the masquerade. However, complications set in when Jack's father arrives unexpectedly and tries to woo the millionaire aunt. Next, the father and guardian of the two young ladies arrives and he also triesx to woo the rich aunt. Even the real aunt Donna Lucia arrives later in the play to complicate matters. This absurd situation has wonderful schemes, great devices and marvelous mistaken identities. It makes for a very entertaining show for the holidays.

Michael David Edwards makes a hilarious Lord Fancourt Babberley and substitute Donna Lucia. He does not ham it up but has the right amount of comedy for the role. Even his bit of "smoking a cigar" in the second act becomes a comedy tour de force. Popular actor Mark Phillips once again shows us why he is one of the best actors in the Bay Area. He can conquer any accent and here he is perfect as the upper-class, stiff upper-lipped British gentleman, Jack Chesney. Mark was the original Irishman in Stones In Pockets when it played here prior to New York and London.

Jonathan Rhys Williams plays Jack's chum Charles, and once again this young man shows great talent for comedy roles. Stealing the show is Gary Martinez, who plays Stephen Spettigue. It is pure delight to watch this man hamming it up and playing the role like an old time melodramatic actor with a voice that is out of this world. He lets the words roll slowly over his tongue and every word is punctuated with almost a soulful sound. I was reminded of those wonderful old English actors that used to travel the provinces in repertory Shakespeare.

The two young ladies, Joy Jacobson and Carie Yonekawa, are charming. Louise Chegwidden shines as the real Donna Lucia and Anthony Newfield is properly British as Jack's father. Stephen Pawley, who has been a staple of our regional theater, is excellent as Brassett. His facial expressions are wonderful as he watches the actions of the assorted characters.

Costumes by Ardith Ann Gray are enchanting Edwardian outfits. Sets by Tom Langguth are airy and lovely to look at. The opening set looks like a sitting room for upper-class English gentlemen in Oxford in 1905. Julie Aaron has orchestrated this farce perfectly. A great idea is implemented between the second and third act - rather than have another intermission during the set change, the four male leads come stage forward to sing a charming English song in harmony that may have been popular in 1905.

Charley's Aunt runs through December 30th at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Tickets are $23 to $40 and public may call (650)903-6000, or visit the TheatreWorks web site at www.theatreworks.org. The next production will be Wendy Wasserstein's Old Money, which opens on January 16 and runs through Feb. 20 at the Mountain View Center for the Arts.




Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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